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Plain and simple, Strange messed up

9/29/2002

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- Sometime in the next few days, perhaps when he's at home in Virginia or playing in this week's Michelob Championship, it will sink in for Curtis Strange.

In the aftermath of his team's 15½-12½ defeat to the Europeans on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, the U.S. captain seemed to be in denial.

He kept contending that there was nothing wrong with his Sunday strategy (putting his biggest stars at the back of the U.S. lineup). He kept insisting that if the Cup was going to come down to the last match, who would you rather have at the end than Tiger Woods?

True, but how often is the Ryder Cup decided in the final match? Rarely. And what good does it do to have Tiger Woods at the end if his play doesn't matter? None.

And that, really, was Strange's mistake. No, it wasn't him swinging the clubs Sunday, when just two players managed to win singles matches. He wasn't Scott Hoch or Hal Sutton or Mark Calcavecchia or Phil Mickelson, players who got blown out, giving life to a charged-up European team.

But had Woods been placed earlier in the lineup, perhaps he could have blunted the momentum. That's what it was Sunday at The Belfry, a building of confidence as player after European player kept putting blue numbers on the board.

That sort of thing works in a frenzied atmosphere such as the Ryder Cup. The same exact strategy worked for the Americans three years ago at Brookline. Strange never seemed to give it a thought. In fact, he almost seemed stunned that European captain Sam Torrance employed the strategy (front-loading his Sunday lineup with his top players).

"I thought he took a hell of a gamble by front-loading his team like he did, a heck of a gamble,'' Strange said. "But if they don't do well, in my mind it was over. They got blue on the board in the first four matches early. And then the crowd got into it. I think that was exactly what he wanted.''

It was. And it worked.

"Saturday night at Brookline, when the draw came up, Monty (Colin Montgomerie) and I looked at each other and we said, 'Where are they going to get the points?' said Jesper Parnevik. "But it was 180 degrees opposite this time around. We felt very good about the draw. We could not have picked a draw that was better for us than we got today. And Sam is probably a lot smarter than he looks. Every match, we felt like we were going to win.''

In the end, Strange can look back and say his players just didn't play well enough on Sunday. In essence, they have to play. Had Scott Hoch put up more of a fight, or if David Duval had gotten a victory instead of a tie, had Jim Furyk held onto his lead over Paul McGinley, it might have been different.

But the last two matches on the course Sunday, ones halved by Davis Love III and Woods, were essentially meaningless. But what if Love had won, making the score 15-13? Now, having Woods closer to the middle or up front, perhaps winning a point the U.S. team didn't get, would make a big difference.

What if?

At some point, Strange will wonder, too.

Bob Harig of the St. Petersburg Times is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.